You may remember the dreadful story of Staff Sergent Robert Bales who left his camp in Afghanistan some months ago and went on a shooting rampage, killing 16 Afghan people, mostly women and children. At the time the Army pledged to have the man executed for his atrocities, a promise that was a diplomatic necessity, given the tenuous position of the American soldiers in that country. It was a promise that the Army now says it may not keep. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us:
The outcome of the case carries high stakes. The Army had been trying to have Bales executed, and Afghan villagers have demanded it.
In Afghanistan Thursday, a family member of a victim reacted angrily to the news that Bales might escape the death penalty.
“This is a shameful act by the Americans. They promised us the death penalty, and now they are going back on their word,” said Baraan Noorzia, whose brother was killed in the massacre.
Other relatives expressed even greater outrage at the possibility, during interviews with The Associated Press last month in Kandahar.
“For this one thing, we would kill 100 American soldiers,” vowed Mohammed Wazir, who had 11 family members killed that night, including his mother and 2-year-old daughter.
This is a very difficult situation the Army, and by extension this country, has gotten itself into. They now say that if Bales will give the details of his night of madness they will take the death penalty off the table. The alternative is life imprisonment with no chance of parole. But this will not satisfy the families of those killed that night, clearly, as we can tell from the remarks of Noorzia and Wazir. Other family members have threatened reprisals as well; the Army is facing a very volatile situation in a country where they do not belong and where they had no business being in the first place.
In fact, this issue has so many layers of difficulty one hardly knows where to begin to peel them off. For one thing, his lawyer contends that Bales, who was on his fourth combat deployment in a row, was suffering from post-traumatic brain syndrome and possible brain injury. In a word, his lawyer contends that the man didn’t know what he was doing even as he did it. He was high on liquor, Valium, and steroids, which he was taking to enable him to carry on in an impossible situation. This gives us compelling reasons to have mercy on the man and blame the Army rather than the man who pulled the trigger that night. This is the tack his lawyer has been taking (and good luck with that). But, on the other hand, Bales is apparently aware of what he did and can recount the details of that night and has promised to do so in order to save his own life. If he knew what he was doing then he is responsible and must suffer the consequences. And those consequences, to appease the families of those he killed, must involve execution — especially in light of the Army’s initial promise to those families. That’s the only “solution” they will accept, and whether we allow that revenge is a compelling ethical reason for action, it is certainly understandable in the circumstances. That is, we can understand why the families of the survivors of that terrible might would want to avenge the deaths of their loved ones even if we don’t accept it as a compelling ethical reason for action. That’s the bind I find myself in. I don’t approve of capital punishment under any circumstances, but in this case, given its promise, I don’t see how the Army can avoid that option if they want to see an end to the turmoil they have stirred up by placing this man in that situation. Political expediency would appear to trump ethics in this case: the only acceptable “solution” is to sacrifice this man to the cause — a cause which is by no means worth the price.
Or the Army will break its promise to the Afghan families and risk reprisals and the further deterioration of this country’s reputation in the Middle East. It’s a dilemma.